Secrecy In Masonic Initiation

PHILALETHES Spring 2010 Issue

Article by: Michael Pearce

To understand the nature of a secret society we should first learn about the means by which its members are made.  Secrecy is a fundamental necessity in the transformation of an initiate from an ordinary member of society to a member of a select group.  These ceremonies are typically concealed from outsiders, lending to their impact.  Arnold Van Gennap coined the term rites de passage in 1909 to describe such liminal events, which focus on transformative moments in an individual’s progress through life: our celebrations of birth, puberty, marriage and death.

Anthropologist Victor turner enlarged upon Van Gennep’s consideration of rites of passage by noting an additional two categories of ritual events that mark the seasonal changes of the environment concluding that in addition to Van Gennep’s rites there are also:

Rites that accompany the passage of a person from ones social status to another in the course of his or her life, and rites that mark recognized points in the passage of time (new year, new moon, solstice, or equinox).

Building upon the work of Van Gennep and Turner, Mircea Eliade added his study of three further kinds of initiatory rites, now including rites of shamanic initiation and-of particular interest to us-the rites performed when a candidate joins a secret society.  Eliade wrote several seminal works about religious practice that are now regarded as classics in the field.  As an historian particularly concerned with the underlying structures of religious behavior, he compared traditional practices from all over the world in order to come to his conclusions about ritual life.  He found that such initiations usually comprise a painful or frightening ordeal, a period of seclusion, a symbolic death and/or burial, a journey into the underworld, a hypnotic sleep or trance state, and often culminate in the candidate wearing a new garment or being given a new name.

Freemasons may note some striking similarities to some of the themes found in the performances of our degrees.  It is worth drawing attention to the antiquity of the ideas expressed in these rituals, even though the rituals themselves are not as ancient. Freemasonry is an initiatic order, whose choice to practice liminal initiation is deeply rooted in historic and prehistoric phenomenon found across all cultures.

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